The Dark Side of the Atlanta BeltLine

In the Old Fourth Ward, an Atlanta neighborhood where civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. was born and raised, Helene Mills, 90, has had her life pushed to the brink. She has lived in her yellow bungalow in the historically black and low income neighborhood since 2003, but recent luxury development in the area has caused her home’s value to nearly double since she bought it. As a senior living on fixed income, Mills has been forced to make major sacrifices in order to afford her skyrocketing property taxes. Even as she cuts back on food and clothing, she still worries that rising taxes could force her out of her beloved neighborhood. Mills is a victims of gentrification, the contentious social phenomenon that has sparked debates among economists, demographers, and citizens alike. While many argue that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks when higher income people move into lower income neighborhoods, the negative effects of gentrification are still a cause for great stress across many inner city neighborhoods. But for Atlanta, in particular, a new government project has redefined the bounds of gentrification: the Atlanta BeltLine. The partially complete 33 mile network of multi-use trails and greenspace will span dozens of neighborhoods, and has become a major attraction for investors and new residents. But despite the benefits that come with dozens of new trails spanning our city, the BeltLine has also become the latest Atlanta saga to displace low income and black residents through rapid, resurgent gentrification.

Ponce City Market, a symbol of gentrifying neighborhoods in Atlanta, looms over the busy Eastside Trail. Credit: Atlanta Beltline Inc.

By the late 20th century, long before the BeltLine was even conceived, upper income whites slowly began to move into some of the Atlanta’s urban neighborhoods, as the national trend of suburbanization and white flight decelerated. These new arrivals to Atlanta’s urban neighborhoods found that, as a result of intentional neighborhood segregation (redlining) during the early 1900s, most neighborhoods were either exorbitantly expensive and white, or mostly low income and black. Unable to afford the high costs of white areas like Ansley Park and Buckhead, arriving young professionals would move into historically black and low-income neighborhoods, drastically changing their makeup. As early as 1984, the New York Times detailed how “one crumbling old neighborhood after another [was] transformed into an oasis for young urban professionals,” driving older tenants out. In Cabbagetown, a future BeltLine neighborhood, houses that sold for $15,000 in the late 1970s were selling for over $150,000 just six years later. While some Cabbagetown homeowners may have been able to make a tidy profit with the new value of the neighborhood, renters got the short end of the stick, having to choose between increased rent prices or being forced out of their neighborhood. Gentrification of Atlanta’s neighorboods crawled along, especially on the city’s eastside, but accelerated in the final decade of the 20th century, when real demographic displacement took place as “the black population in the city of Atlanta dropped from 67.1 percent to 62.1 percent while the white population increased from 31 percent to 34 percent,” marking the first drop in the city’s black population for many decades.

But the rapid gentrification of the ’90s was just a precursor to that of the 2000s, when the BeltLine project was introduced, spawning an even greater frenzy of development and displacement. A massive city-sponsored infrastructure project, the BeltLine would also be a major catalyst for accelerating the ongoing migration of white people into the city. It provided both the infrastructure for high-end development, and was situated in a location that would be attractive for new arrivals to the city. This situation is part of what Georgia Tech Professor of Planning Larry Keating referred to in 2003 as brand-new “resurgent gentrification,” in which proximity to the BeltLine and the city center became the driving factor behind gentrification, contrasting with previous gentrification which was more about the architecture or appeal of a specific neighborhood. This new wave had potential to affect more neighborhoods and people than before, and as the BeltLine came to reality in the early 2000s, it became clear that widespread gentrification would be an imminent result of the project.

Numerous groups in the early 2000s saw the inevitability of soaring housing costs along the corridor, and many fought for an affordable housing undertaking to assist in curbing negative effects; but in the end, the city has mostly failed to deliver on these goals, leaving the situation unresolved. In 2005, under pressure from numerous nonprofits, BeltLine leaders along with Atlanta City Council agreed that 15% of the project’s funds should be allocated to affordable housing, a number that would build 5,600 affordable units over a 25 year time frame. However, the BeltLine has struggled to stay on target since the outset of the project. In 2017, BeltLine CEO Paul Morris admitted that the project deserved a “D” grade for the number of affordable units that had been built so far. As of 2020, less than 40% of the target units have been built, while 60% of the project’s time frame has passed. Additional controversy swirls around the actual affordability of many of these units. The Lofts at Reynoldstown Crossing, for example, were condominiums built in 2012 as part of the BeltLine’s affordable housing program. But five years later, a two bedroom condo at the development sold for nearly $350,000, far too expensive for over 75% of Atlantans. The city is outright failing to provide affordable housing for original BeltLine area residents as the BeltLine causes that housing to rapidly disappear.

A condo at The Lofts at Reynoldstown Crossing, built to be “affordable housing,” commands a sale price within reach for only the richest 25% of Atlantans. Credit: http://jonsatlantarealestate.blogspot.com/.

Old Fourth Ward, an eastside neighborhood, is perhaps the most famous example, and foremost cautionary tale, of BeltLine gentrification. After being defined as “Hazardous” by Atlanta realtors in the early 1900s, white and rich people avoided the neighborhood and it remained mostly black and low income throughout the century. Gentrification arrived in the ’90s, however, and massively accelerated in the 2000s, when the first portion of the BeltLine was built right through the neighborhood. Author Nathan McCall documented the demographic change in his 2007 novel Them. The protagonist “rides past the ash-brick factories now being converted into trendy lofts to make way for the chi-chi Yuppies swarming in.” The statistics match his observations: from 2000 to 2015, the black population dropped from 76% to under 50%, and the white population rose from 16% to 39%. Even more dramatic, the average sale price of a home in the neighborhood shot from $280,000 in 2013 to over $660,000 just five years later. Even for the homeowners in the neighborhood, like the aforementioned Helene Mills, heightening property taxes alone can be enough to drive out original residents. The BeltLine’s effect has largely replaced the neighborhood’s once affordable housing with shiny, expensive loft apartments, and initial data suggests the area is now majority white, a far cry from what the neighborhood once was.

Even in an area like Atlanta’s southside, which was not gentrifying at all before the arrival of the BeltLine, and is home to perhaps the most deeply segregated and historically low income neighborhoods in the city, the displacing effects of the BeltLine can still be seen. Future BeltLine neighborhoods on the southside like Pittsburgh, Mechanicsville, and Peoplestown were redlined by realtors at the lowest grade in the 1930s, and those areas have remained completely black and low income ever since. The region mostly escaped the gentrification of the late 20th century pre-BeltLine era that plagued eastside neighborhoods, but early 21st century plans for the BeltLine’s construction on the southside were the tipping point. Between 2002 and 2005, simple excitement and speculation for the prospects of the project caused a huge appreciation of property values on the Southside with “price premiums for being located within a quarter-mile of the [BeltLine tax zone] on the Southside generally increasing by approximately 15–30 percentage points.” This increase in property value was dramatic enough to cause wide displacement of incumbent residents. More recent research continues to find that gentrification plagues the southside, as between 2010 and 2015, median income increased at a higher rate in southern neighborhoods than in Atlanta as a whole.

The Atlanta BeltLine undoubtedly has its positive traits, and it has truly cemented its massive impact on the geography and demography of Atlanta; however, it’s important to see how the ongoing project has and will continue to be a major force for the displacement of poor and black people across the city. While the BeltLine has certainly improved some of its neighborhoods when considering factors like safety and economic vibrancy, it’s also priced many of those original residents who gave neighborhoods their unique character in the first place. And regardless of how we consider these effects of the BeltLine, at the end of the day, Atlanta’s poor, black, and already marginalized population are yet again the losers.

Politics, urban planning, birds, and geography

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